In Part 3 of HBO’s lyrical, nuanced, romantic and tough-minded World War I era series, Parade’s End, the aloof Sylvia Tietjens says of her aristocratic husband, “Christopher is the last decent man in England. How dare they put their knives into him – he’s mine.” By then we know that she is not simply complaining that Christopher’s colleagues in the British government have turned on him; she is saying the he is hers to manipulate and torture in an endless dance of love and hate. This is the most fun we’ve had with Edwardians since Downton Abbey.
Parade’s End comes with a sterling literary pedigree. If you were imagining an ideal adaptation, you might wish for Benedict Cumberbatch starring in a Tom Stoppard adaptation of Ford Madox Ford novels, which is exactly what you get in this 5-part series. Christopher Tietjens is a terribly conservative aristocrat, driven by conscience and propriety, who sounds like the last man to be our contemporary hero. One of the great feats of Stoppard’s screenplay — and of Cumberbatch’s eloquent, moving performance – is to take us so sympathetically inside the mind of a man utterly unlike anyone in the 21st century.
Ford, a great Modernist (The Good Soldier) published the four novels that became Parade’s End between 1924-28, but the story looks back to the years just before and after World War I, when all of civilization seemed to change, and Tietjens’ world of decorum and duty became wobbly under his feet. Tietjens goes from the government bureaucracy to the front lines and back again, but his true heroism is in trying to stay true to his own values in the face of a changing world, not to mention an emotionally sadistic wife. Parade’s End may take place in the same era as Downton Abbey, but here no one ever seems at ease; every moment is fraught.
At the start, we see Tietjens about to marry Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), and telling his older brother (Rupert Everett), “I don’t even know if the child is mine.” Not likely, since his quick tryst with Sylvia on a moving train happened just two months before. We have also seen her, on the eve of her wedding, toss out her lover (Jack Huston).
To contemporary eyes, Tietjens might look like a sap. Stoppard and Cumberbatch allow us to see and respect him as a noble sap, doing what he thinks is right. Hall is fearlessly unlikable as Sylvia, yet we also see that in her twisted way she longs for Christopher’s love.
He is soon trapped in marriage and thwarted in romance when he meet his soulmate, Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), a suffragette and sexually innocent. She and Tietjens bring to the screen something rarely seen or felt in films today: the frisson of delayed gratification.
The series is elegantly directed by Susanna White, who was one of the directors of the Masterpiece series Bleak House and of HBO’s Iraq war drama Generation Kill, and is equally at home with the sumptuous drawing rooms and the trench warfare of Parade’s End.
The great supporting cast and characters is lead by Stephen Graham. He vividly plays Christopher’s loyal best friend, Vincent Macmaster, a writer who becomes more pompous and self-important with each success. (If you want to see just how versatile Graham is, remember that he also plays Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire.) Anne-Marie Duff is Macmaster’s social-climbing lover and later wife, and Janet McTeer is Sylvia’s mother, as concerned with propriety as Christopher is.
Parade’s End does share this quality with Downton: both are irresistible.